Saturday, July 5, 2014

Bikes to Backpacks, June 27, 2014

There's one road that goes into Denali National Park.  No private vehicles are allowed past the Savage River at mile 15, so the road's 90 miles are almost exclusively traveled by registered tour buses.  Lucky for us, bicycles are also allowed.  Before entering the park, we purchase tickets for what is known as the "camper bus," so that we will have transportation to the start of our backpacking trip (a loop that will bring us back to our bikes) and a ride back to the park entrance when we have gotten our fill of biking.  The following details our first full day of travel in the park.

We wake up in the Sanctuary River campground to the sound of rain on the tent again.  Neither of us wants to get up, but we know we have a lot to do, so we start packing.  There are two male cyclists from Fairbanks at our campground who are also biking the Denali road.  When we emerge from our tent, they are frantically moving their stuff into a walk-in bear locker to get it out of the rain.  I'm surprised that they're not more prepared for the weather; this is Alaska, after all.  We congratulate ourselves on being packed up and on the road before someone else.  The road is in pretty good condition, but it's wet and muddy and it takes extra effort to bike through.  It's freezing outside, so despite our best efforts to layer and keep warm, we are soon both soaked and cold.  Around us are rushing rivers, dense brush, and mountains which are mostly hidden by the thick cloud blanket.  It's hard to look up and enjoy the scenery, since every time we do, the rain blasts us in the face and drips down our jackets.  We do, however, see a moose.
on the rainy road

Our journey brings us to Toklat, a strange area with lots of restrooms and a big tent with a store inside.  There are a lot of people around, because there's a temporary closure on the road beyond.  The rain is causing all sorts of landslides.  We switch from bikes to backpacks, have some lunch, then hop on an eastbound bus that takes us back to Unit 8.  The place we had wanted to start is very steep, so instead we hike off the road a bit west of where we had planned.  Our hike brings us through marsh, brush, and a small river.  After a ways, we get to a larger river, which we plan to follow all the way to the glaciers in the distance.  Mostly we hike on gravel bars and make good time.  They are really wonderful for hiking!
on a gravel bar
Sometimes the river cuts close to the bank and we have to cut around through the brush or cross it.  We cross multiple times, each immersion in the ice cold water bringing my feet closer to unbearable numbness.  Along the way, we find beautifully colored rocks in almost any color you could imagine.  They make an incredible mosaic along the riverbank.

We also find a large hunk of white fur (fox tail?), some gorgeous lupines, and yellow flowers glistening in the rain.  The hike rewards us with a crazy view of the road winding its way along the mountain cliffs.  Ahead of us is the Polychrome Glacier, snowy, misty, and mysterious.  With freezing feet, we camp downstream from where we plan on passing over the mountains tomorrow.  As we eat dinner, we finally see a small window of blue sky, and the sun peeks over the top of the mountains.  After a long day of steady rain, perhaps things are looking up!

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